The story of Herbert Alexander Hedeman as a distance runner is closely bound up with the development in Australia as an enduring professional running scene.
The Stawell Gift started 120 years ago as an athletics competition between miners in the Victorian goldfields in Australia. Held every Easter in the small town of Stawell, three hours west of Melbourne, the distance race was over one mile, 'The Miners' Handicap', first run in 1880. That first mile in 1880 was won by C. Astall from J. Croughan and T. Bennett (Scratch) in a field of 14. The winner was probably Stawell's first 'dark horse' because back marker Croughan and scratch-man Bennett could not catch him in the final dash. No time was taken.
Right from its earliest years Stawell catered for all distances and athletes; in 1896 it first staged a three mile handicap which was changed to two miles in 1900. Winner of the 1896 three miles was H. Hopper from A. V. Fosse and T. Ballinger. His time was 14.59.6, winning margin was several yards and winner collected £14.
Herbert Hedeman was born on the 10th November 1881 in Sydney. He subsequently moved to Melbourne. When he showed promise as a distance runner, the professional ranks must have attracted him. His close contemporary Arthur Postle, the famous Australian professional sprinter made his impact on the running scene, some five years earlier than Hedeman, and Jack Donaldson. another famous professional sprinter, who was five years younger, also was competing internationally by 1909.
It seems possible that for family reasons Herb Hedeman delayed his move in the professional ranks until he was nearly 30 years old. Perhaps his family insisted that he establish himself in steady employment before entering the more uncertain world of professional running.
In the Stawell Gift races reasonably close to his Melbourne home, he made his debut. In 1911 he finished second in a close finish in the Federation Handicap one mile, running off a 60 yards handicap – so 1700 yards. The winner ran 4 minutes 16 seconds. He was third in the half mile, running off a 30 yard handicap i.e. 850 yards, with the winner clocking 1:52:8.
The following year he entered both the Federation Mile and the Grampians Two Miles. To make it much tougher these races were held on the same day.
Hedeman won the mile by three yards in 4:22.8 running off a 50 yard handicap, and he also took the two mile in a very close finish, by one yard, in 9:34.4 off a 56 yard handicap. This feat of winning two distance races in one day has never been beaten at Stawell.
The following year, 1913, Hedeman entered the half mile as well. Second, off a handicap of 20 yards, behind a winning time of 1:52.8, he faced a tougher task in the one mile and two mile than in 1912. His handicap was reduced to 20 yards in the one mile, yet he still managed to win by several yards in 4:21 from Charles E Bergmeier. The longer two mile event was also held on the same day and once again Hedeman’s handicap had been reduced to 20 yards. Although his winning time was nearly ten seconds slower than in 1912, he won decisively by 25 yards.
This feat of winning two distance events in one day, which Hedeman achieved in 1912 and in 1913, has never been matched since in the Stawell Easter Gift races. For this reason Hedeman is recognised as one of Australia’s great distance runners.
However Herbert Hedeman’s success had not come at a good time in Australian professional athletics. Professional sprinter Jack Donaldson described the then desperate situation - 'With matches as scarce as hens' teeth and handicaps almost hopeless’.
After the Stawell race Hedeman and second placer Charles Bergmeier decided to seek their fortunes on the more flourishing and therefore more attractive British professional running circuit.
A golden opportunity presented itself virtually as soon as Hedeman stepped off the boat in Britain. In September 1913 at the Powderhall Grounds, Edinburgh, Canadian Hans Holmer had beaten the then World Mile Champion, Frank Kanaly (USA).
Frank Kanaly had first become prominent between the years 1899 to 1901 when competing as an amateur, winning the US national five mile championship. In 1902 he had turned professional and in the next five years held US national titles in the half-mile, the mile, the two mile and the five mile events. After his great success in America, Kanaly decided to widen his horizons and competed abroad for several seasons adding the world's championship in the half-mile, the mile and the mile and a half.
Hans Holmer, born of a Danish father and English mother, had emigrated from Britain at the age of four to New York in 1890 but had subsequently had been resident in Halifax, Nova Scotia and from 1907 onwards, when he won first the Mayor's Cup and then the Natal Day 6 Mile road race, was known as the leading runner in the Canadian Atlantic Provinces. He had failed to finish in the Toronto Canadian Olympic trial in June 1908, but that year won the Round the Bay race in 1:51:16.
When the Marathon Craze hit following the Dorando disqualification in the 1908 Olympics, Holmer had quickly turned professional and won six consecutive marathon victories. After losing several races through his excessive initial pace, Holmer had set a world marathon record on the Edinburgh Powderhall track of 2:32:21.8 on the 3rd January 1911. In 1912 he had claimed the world marathon title in Berlin, but lost his world record to the Finn Willie Kolehmainen. Earlier in 1913 he had also won and defended the World 10 mile title.
Hedeman had reached England by the time the World Mile Championships had been won by Hans Holmer and he immediately challenged the Canadian for the title. They were matched at the Snipe Inn ground at Audenshaw, Manchester, for a purse of £100. The Snipe Inn had been a venue for professional footracing since the 1840s. It was selected by the Lancashire Pedestrian Syndicate, who became the promoters of the match. Over two thousand spectators turned up, despite an important football match between Salford and Wigan on a neighbouring ground.
The half a mile track at the Snipe Inn ground was usually used for trotting races by horses. Such a venue, a trotting track attached to an inn had been commonly used when professional distance running had evolved in the 1850s and 1860s. Such enclosed venues could draw large crowds brought by the new railway system. The Snipe Inn trotting track, having been used by horses consequently was rather soft on top, although brushes and heavy roller had been used to make a better surface. Both Holmer and Hedeman were satisfied with the track, knowing a fast time was out of the question. The then professional world mile record was 4:12.75 by Englishman Walter George, set some twenty-seven years earlier, world title matches tended to be tactical affairs, much as they are now.
Holmer was trained for the match by the famous miler, George Blennerhassett Tincler, who himself had held the world title, while Hedeman was prepared by his fellow Australian Charles Bergmeier.
On the day of the race, the 1st November 1913, Holmer won the toss and chose the inside. He stood up in what was called the old style while Hedeman went down into a crouch start. Immediately the gun was fired, Hedeman went to the inside, and was to keep that position throughout the race. With Holmer running at his shoulder Hedeman ran relaxed. At half way, Holmer tried to spurt past him, but Hedeman held his position, and it became clear that Holmer lacked the pace to take the lead.
Some 300 yards from the finish line, Hedeman began to sprint, opening a gap of nearly five yards. Despite Holmer's desperate efforts in the last 100 yards, Hedeman hung on, despite being exhausted. He won by three yards in 4 minutes 34 seconds. Holmer at once congratulated the new world mile champion.
After Hedeman beat Holmer, he heard rumours that Harold Wilson, the 1908 Olympic silver medallist at 1500 metres and current English mile champion, was claiming that he was entitled to the world championship title. This was despite the fact that Wilson had been beaten for the world title by Frank Kanaly in Blackpool, [who subsequently had been beaten by Holmer] Wilson was then currently running in South Africa and defeating all opposition.
On hearing this, Hedeman decided to go to South Africa and meet Wilson in a mile race. Once there he engaged the famous South African trainer, Tom Christian, to prepare him. The match was set to take place on the 28th February 1914 at the Lord's ground, Durban. Wilson jumped into the lead at the start and set a fast pace. This suited Hedeman who lengthened his stride and took over the lead. At the halfway point, Hedeman slackened the pace and Wilson re-took the lead. At the bell, Hedeman took the lead once more, but it was not until halfway around the bend that the little Englishman began to move up. Hedeman responded - three times Wilson tried to take the lead, each time the bigger and stronger Australian (1.72 metres/62 kg) just lengthened his stride, to win by four yards in a time of 4 minutes 39.2 seconds. Hedeman was the undisputed champion of the world. He was never beaten in a match race on even terms.
It is not certain what Hedeman did after this win. Powderhall and Pedestrianism, the book on professional running in Britain states that "a strong endeavour was made to maintain the recreative diversions of the people throughout the years of strife." So the Powderhall meetings went on as usual. The "marathon" was held annually and the entries had a good international spread, including Hedeman’s former opponent Hans Holmer. Jack Donaldson, Hedeman’s Australian contemporary, sprinted against Applegarth at Salford, England in 1915. I have found no mention of Hedeman defending his world title, or even competing. However elsewhere professional runners in other parts of Britain ran out of competitions, Cumbria being a good example. With so many young fit men conscripted for war service, meetings would lack strength in depth.
It is possible that having got to Durban in 1914, Hedeman was reluctant to risk the periodic unrestricted submarine, highlighted by the sinking of the "Lusitania" in 1915 on a voyage back to England. In any event, Hedeman decided to stay there. Possibly having achieved his ambition of becoming World Champion, he gave up professional athletics and settled down - he would have been 32, well beyond what was considered at the time to be his most competitive years. We do know that after the First World War, Hedeman was in South Africa and apparently still in Durban, the large port on the Indian Ocean. With a pleasant climate and one of the largest open air swimming baths in the world, it was an ideal location for the former professional athlete.
In late 1925 Hedeman decided to immigrate to the United States. Durban seems to have been fairly prosperous at this time, so the reasons for the move are not clear. He travelled by ship first to Britain, where he obtained a visa for the United States in London. On the 4th February 1926 he sailed for New York on the passenger ship SS Olympic from Southampton. The ship, the twin of the ill-fated Titanic, had actually been built before her sister ship, however reassuringly she was known as “Old Reliable”.
By 1926 the massive four funnelled SS Olympic had been converted to oil burning and could carry close to two and a half thousand passengers in each trans-Atlantic voyage. It was said that she was was the largest British built liner afloat Sailing at around 22 knots, the SS Olympic would complete the voyage in under six days.
On the list of passengers, Hedeman gave his occupation is given as `athlete’, so perhaps the now veteran Hedeman hoped to revive his former running career.
Hedeman settled in New York and soon married a widow with children. Now 45 years old, he had decided to put down roots at last. However supporting his new family was not to be easy. There was no professional running scene in the United States at this time.
By early 1928 Herbert Hedeman was broke and he and his wife and five children were reduced to living in one room but possible salvation was at hand.. In late 1927 the promoter C.C. Pyle had come up with the idea of an annual Trans-America footrace, using the newly completed Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago and then using other highways onward to New York. The entry fee was $25 with food and lodging provided by Pyle. The 1928 Trans-Continental race offered Herbert Hedeman a lifeline, a chance to re-join the professional running scene once more, and perhaps even a way out of poverty.
The 1928 race was said by its promoter to be the first of an annual series of races across America, like the famous French Paris-Strasbourg walk and the Tour de France cycle race. Hedeman, out of condition after at least ten years away from the professional circuit, was to use the first race as preparation and experience for the future events. Unlike his fellow Australian, Mike McNamara, Hedeman managed to complete the race, reputedly finishing 38th. The promoter of the race, C C Pyle was not able to come up with the prize money but another promoter, Tex Rickard and the Californian millionaire father of one of the finishers, ensured the money was paid.
Many of the veterans of the 1928 race decided to provide their own handlers for the 1929 race, and invested their prize money in a vehicle for a handler. Hedeman and his fellow countryman, McNamara, pooled their capital and built their own motorised caravan. As Pete Guvuzzi, one of the strongest runners in both races, often remarked, “The first race was an amateur event. The second was professional.”
Hedeman was a very different competitor in the 1929 race, placing 6th, 7th, 2nd in the first three stages. Hedeman would have taken the overall lead on the fourth day if he had not been misdirected off course and lost 40 minutes.
On Day 5 in the 37 miles stage from Wilmington to Havre de Grace Hedeman was locked in battle with the much younger Paul Simpson. For 30 miles they matched strides until eventually Simpson was forced to slow to a walk. The bearded Hedeman won in 4:44:45, and moved into the lead on cumulative time. However his early push had been premature, and other more cautious and prudent runners now began to come into their own. On the sixth day stage, Hedeman dropped to 18th, and within five days was down to 10th place on the elapsed time.
Hedeman overcame his inclination to push hard at every stage, and soon became established in the 7th to 10th slot in the cumulative elapsed time, alongside McNamara. This was no mean feat, racing experienced ultra veterans over stages that could vary between 30 and 60 miles a day. The trick was to keep a close watch on the runners immediately in front and behind you on the cumulative elapsed time, ensuring that the latter did not eat into your lead over them, and seeing if you could gain on those in front without expending too much energy. Pushing too hard on one stage could be costly if it had a detrimental effect for several days afterwards.
Occasionally, like on the 31st day, Hedeman would finish in the top three, covering the 33 miles from Springfield to Miller in 4:35:05. The shorter distances suited him, as when he won the 32 mile stage from Oakcliff, Dallas to Fort Worth in 4:20:40 on Day 42, but having said that two days later he was second over a 52.2 mile stage, clocking 7:25:50, also finishing second the next day on a rare sub-marathon, 24.7 mile stage, and the next over 37 miles. But the gap between him and Harry Abramowitz, one place ahead of him, was measured in hours; Abramowitz tried never to let Hedeman get too far away from him in a stage, so unless Abramowitz became injured or ill, moving up involved Hedeman taking the risk of over-extending himself and suffering the consequences in the following days.
Hedeman and McNamara were suffering under a major disadvantage. Their motorised caravan had broken down and they were the only leading runners without their own trainer.
When eventually Abramowitz did crack, Hedeman was then in direct competition with his fellow Australian Mike McNamara. Days 72 and 73 were classic examples of race tactics with both men coming in 5th place together. When Abramowitz attempted to regain his place, Hedeman stuck with the younger man no matter what. One knowledgeable spectator described the courage of the old veteran the greatest he had ever witnessed in sport. Although Abramowitz was to win the 70 mile 76th stage by three hours, it was too late, he too far behind to beat the two Australians.
At the end of the epic race of 3,635 miles/5850 km which had lasted 79 days, the two Australians were separated by just three hours, McNamara with a time of 627:45:28 in 7th and Hedeman in 8th with 631:23:48. Many of the runners had lost up to fourteen pounds/6.5kg in weight.
They should have been well rewarded for all their efforts – with McNamara receiving $2000 and Hedeman $1750. Instead they were offered worthless cheques. Pyle had run out of money.
Many of the Trans-continental runners returned home from Los Angeles, but some of the elite performers tried to make a living as professional runners. In July 1929 a two man team 6 Day race was arranged at the Ascot Speedway Stadium, Los Angeles. The aim was to surpass the mark made by the French team of Orphee and Cabot set in 1909 at the Madison Square Gardens. Johnny Salo and Sammy Richman emerged as the winners, with 749.5 miles. Hedeman was part of one team that clocked up 424 miles in the 6 days. The runners each received $5, less than a cent a mile.
Several of the Pyle runners kept in touch, letting each other know of professional racing opportunities, such as 15 mile events and snowshoe races in Canada. Unlike Hedeman, these men appear to have been unattached and did not have his family responsibilities. The two-man 6 day team race in Los Angeles appears to have been his final professional race. Having twice deserted his family in search of elusive success as a professional runner, Hedeman probably felt it would be irresponsible to do it again, especially as he was now nearing 50 years old. Arthur Newton, his contemporary, could afford to trade on his established reputation in the hope of professional prize and appearance money, but he had no ties or responsibilities.
Subsequent correspondence between the former Pyle runners shows Hedeman was still living in Los Angeles. But he eventually did make his way back to New York to his wife and family.
As the Depression got worse so the few race opportunities for the remaining professional Pyle runners finally disappeared anyway, and the rest of the runners were forced to turn to other occupations.
What actually happened to Herbert Hedeman afterwards is largely unknown. By the 1940s he was living in East 53rd Street, New York and working for the largest Real Estate broker in Manhattan, Douglas Elliman & Co and worked from the Park Avenue office. (Elliman was a long established company, founded in 1911.) There had obviously been a massive improvement in Hedeman’s financial situation.
With the attack on Pearl Harbour, and the threat to his Australian homeland, Hedeman was determined to do his bit, and joined the equivalent of the Home Guard at the age of 60. According to the Stawell Athletic Club, he was a regular visitor to the Stawell Easter gift at least up to the mid sixties, traveling from the USA. At that time, he would have been in his eighties, so he obviously was still active into his old age, with the funds to pay for frequent trans-Pacific trips.
Someone who met him then describes him as a “very fit, lean and obviously dedicated runner ….He was a very well preserved physical figure”. At that time he was still living in New York. When he became more frail into his late eighties or early nineties, he seems to have relocated to Los Angeles in California, perhaps for family support.
Herbert Hedeman died on the 22nd September 1976 in Los Angeles, California, in his mid nineties. He was the longest lived of the Pyle runners, although his greatest opponent from the 1929 race, much younger Harry Abramowitz, was still around in 1985.
In 1958 the Stawell Athletic Club named their annual Mile competition, the Herb Hedeman Mile, and the event has been won by several distinguished professional runners since. It is a fitting memorial for one of Australia’s great distance runners, but ironically perhaps his greatest performance, racing across America, is largely forgotten.
Hedeman’s importance in the story of distance running in the twentieth century is that his career linked so many different running traditions and cultures, from the Stawell events, rooted in the goldfields of Australia, to the challenge matches of British professional track racing and world championships, to the early development of the Comrades, to the professional road racing across America and the brief revival of pedestrianism in North America in the late 20s and early 30s. His varied career showed just how precarious professional running could be, but his frequent visits to the Easter Stawell Gift in later life shows that his connection to his distance running roots remained strong through his life.
Researched and compiled by ultra historian, Andy Milroy